Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tips for Teachers -- 3

We don’t talk much about teaching “theology,” but we all do it – or should. Theology has to do with the study of God, and since all that we are, and hope to be, is tied inseparably to the nature, promises and directives of God, anything we study in the Bible is “theologically” oriented.

Especially do we teach “theology” when we teach by subject rather than by text.

When we teach subject oriented classes, the task becomes infinitely more difficult. We must first ascertain what texts in the Bible address our subject. As we do this, we must be sure that the passages we select, in their context, actually do address our subject.

For example:

I was in a class that had to do with “worship” many years ago. The teacher was talking about the proper “order” of worship and asserted that the last thing we should do in assembly is “sing.” His reasoning was that in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn” at the end of the “Last Supper.” The problem was, and is, that neither of these passages were written for the purpose of addressing the matter of the worship assembly, much less its order. The passage may specifically mention “singing,” but that doesn’t mean it is instructive regarding the Christian assembly, much less “order of worship.” You cannot use a text to make any point that was not intended to be made in the text itself.


In 1 John 1:9, John wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Does this mean that if we fail to confess some sin – perhaps one we might be ignorant of – that God will hold that against us? I’ve heard this passage cited to talk about prayer and forgiveness and maintain that God will not forgive a sin unconfessed. But the issue for John was not the need to keep a catalog of sins so that we might be sure to confess them all, but the need to be confessional people in the first place. John’s readers were more likely simply to deny that they had sinned. It was this failure to be introspective and honest that was the point (clearly seen in the “If we” passages of that book).

Once you are familiar with the entirety of scripture on a particular matter, you are then qualified to teach “subjects.” Perhaps you can now see why I regard this as so much more difficult.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tips for Teachers - 2

James, the brother of Jesus wrote: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

The Apostle Paul commented on this problem in 1 Timothy 1 when he referred to troublemakers in the church in Ephesus who wanted to “be teachers of the law.”

These days I wonder what the early church was doing differently to cause so many people to want to be teachers, when we in our time have so much difficulty finding teachers for our Bible classes.

My first point in this series was that Bible class teachers ought to study the Bible. It is one thing to use resource materials. It is another to be so wedded to them that you are just parroting their views. Teachers should study the Bible, using resource materials to augment their study, then present a lesson based on the conclusions of personal diligent study.

Second, if for any reason you find yourself parroting your resource materials, for goodness sake do not constantly refer to the fact. Begin your lesson by simply saying: "In presenting this class today on _____________ , I am indebted to _______________ and his/her book entitled _____________________. I found it very helpful in getting my mind around the subject."

Then, let it go.

If you constantly disagree with your resource material, press on with your lesson and don't mention the resource at all. If you continue to mention it, and why you differ, or belabor its inadequacies, your audience will wonder why you wasted so much time with such a poor resource.

Third, look for good resource materials. The internet is a minefield of poor resources. Just because someone writes something on the internet doesn't mean it's credible. I had to go to the ER last year. The doctor came in, examined me, and then said he'd be right back. When he didn't come back for a while, I went to find him. He was on the internet researching my condition. I had a little fun with him at his expense, but the fact of the matter was, he knew where the credible internet resources were. He didn't just "google" the issue and swallow the first few hits he found relevant. Unless you know where credible Bible study resources are, "google" is not the place to go for Bible study tools.

Whether from the internet, your local christian bookstore, or a theological library, before you buy into an author's conviction, you should know something about the author. What are his credentials? How old is his research? Adam Clark and Albert Barnes (along with John T. Hinds, J.W. McGarvey and a host of others) were respected Bible scholars of another era. Their works today, however, are nearly worthless for modern research. All wrote before the vast majority of Biblical archeology had been uncovered. All wrote before the vast body of textual evidence relative to biblical languages had been revealed. It’s like doing open heart surgery using 19th century medical scholarship. The patient might survive – but it’s doubtful. As time goes on, other authors will have consulted the old works, discussed the bad parts, incorporated the good parts, and added additional (hopefully more helpful/accurate) information. Make sure your sources are up-to-date.

One final point I’ve learned from one of my sons. There are few people of note, authorities in their field, who are unwilling to help a budding teacher who is sincerely chasing help. Most of the time, you can find their email address online. If you write them, identify yourself (I am _____________ and I am teaching a Bible class on _______________________ at ___________________ church) and ask them to recommend a book on a particular subject/book of the Bible. They will almost always reply with helpful information. But there are some rules. Don’t write long letters. Anything more than a couple of sentences is too much. Also, if you don’t like their recommendations, stop asking. Finally, don’t argue with them: in comparison, you are unlikely to know what you are talking about and they simply will not invest time in argumentation. A helpful door will close.

Next week: teaching "theology" (yes, you are probably doing it).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tips For Teachers (1)

Years ago (nearly forty as a matter of fact), I visited an adult Bible class in my wife's hometown. The teacher that day was beginning a study of the book of Revelation. He opened with these words: "The Book of Revelation is almost beyond understanding. The only resource I have on this book is John Hinds commentary. Brother Hinds is a great Bible scholar and I can think of no better book on Revelation so that is the book we will be using."

"So," I thought, "we will not be studying Revelation, but John Hinds' thoughts on Revelation." Never mind that John Hinds has been dead for fifty years. Never mind that scholarship has moved appreciably in that half century. Though the book of Revelation is the only book in the Bible that pronounces a blessing on those who read it; we will never get that blessing because we will not be reading Revelation. We'll be reading John T. Hinds."

You are right: I am being tough on the teacher who undoubtedly thought he was doing the best he could. But it was far from his best. He could at least have asked his preacher what books he might recommend on Revelation. But he didn't.

All this brings to mind some suggestions for those who undertake the awesome responsibility of being a Bible teacher.

First, Bible classes deserve to study the Bible. It's true that teachers cannot help but interpret scripture, but interpretation is a "process" that only "includes" consulting resource materials. Not consulting resource materials means you did not fully engage the process. ONLY teaching a resource material means you did not engage the process at all. I will have more to say about resources materials themselves in another post, but I would urge you to at least consult a good Bible student (your preacher for example) to point you in the direction of good material. Unfortunately, lots of folks think they don't need to consult anyone and usually, everyone ends up knowing they didn't.

More next time.

Friday, April 30, 2010

When It's Time To Change

Parsis are adherents of the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism. A tenent of their faith has to do with the purity of fire, soil, and water and so, one of their rituals is to never bury the dead. Instead, they place them atop “Towers of Silence,” exposed to sun, sky, and vultures.

The problem is . . . India (where the largest group of Parsis live) is running out of vultures. Cremation is not an option. Neither is burial. Some say the Towers of Silence are “antiquated,” and that tradition should be forgotten (read the controversy in more detail in Meera Bubramanian’s “A Crisis for the Faithful” Wall Street Journal -- April 30, 2010).

Unless one can be shown from reliable evidence that what one holds to be Biblical teaching is false, we should not be in any hurry to give it up.

On the other hand, there is sometimes a difference between what we believe, and what we do. And often, how we do what we do affects the value of what we believe.

Did I lose you?

What is your church doing to bring people to Christ? What is your church doing to build community among its members? What is your church doing to foster and nurture Christ-like behavior in your church community?

Make a list.

When you are finished, ask yourself honestly: Are these things working? If not, why? If they just don’t work, why continue to do them? How long will the Church as you know it languish in unfruitfulness? How many more generations will come and go before all that’s left is property? Europe is full of cathedrals where mass is said every day – but no one comes.

Of course, there are always those who reply: “We know we need change, but we don’t want it. The next generation will have to do it.” And the next generation won’t do it because they don’t want to upset the previous generation.

If change is to be made, it will have to begin with the mature. Not change just for the sake of change, but change to try and be better about our Heavenly Father’s business.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Heart of Successful Leadership

[NOTE: Every week Rubel Shelly publishes an article called the FAX of Life. The email/Fax is free to those who want to subscribe. Subscribe by writing to The following was published early in February. I reproduce it here for the really good message and to provide it wider circulation. Rubel is the President of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, MI. mt]

I visited with a friend over dinner the other night. He is an attorney. A really good one. He works for a prestige firm and does some of their most important work for its biggest clients. He was talking about leadership.

"Law schools are producing some sharp graduates these days and sending them our way," he said. "As you can imagine, we get lots of applications from the best and brightest. I don't think it would ever be the case that we worry about one of our applicants knowing the law or being able to pass the bar exam. But we are really having a hard time finding people we want to hire."

"Why is that?" I asked.

"We have a hard time finding people who are leadership caliber," he continued. "We need people who will step up and step out. And they are getting harder and harder to find. Either that or we are looking in the wrong places!"

The more we talked about the leadership issue, the more engaged we both became in the conversation. What does it take to make a leader? What are the qualities to look for? What are the qualities to cultivate in your own life?

You obviously look for core competencies in a leader. She must have appropriate background and training. He must have some assessments that say he can do the job. It is always better to have someone who has already proved himself in a similar role. All these things point to aptitude and know-how.

It is harder still to find someone who sees the big picture and is forward-looking in handling his responsibilities. Leaders have to fix messes and keep a close eye on hitting productivity and profit targets. But they have to be more interested in keeping the company, family, or church on track with its long-term goals. They have to be visionary persons who can communicate their vision.

Okay, those two are obvious and easy. A leader has to possess basic competence and vision. But my friend was emphatic about the third item. No, it wasn't third except for the sequence of discussion. It is, according to him at least, the first and most critical item. He was adamant that the thing most often lacking in potential leaders is personal integrity. Common decency. Good character.

Leadership is a matter of being before it is a way of doing. Politicians, evangelists, athletes, bankers, actors, CEOs - all of them had good-to-excellent skills and a sufficient supply of vision and ego to get to their leadership positions. But we have witnessed hosts of them melt down before our eyes because of a lack of principled character that would let them use their positions responsibly.

All the knowledge, skills, charisma, looks, and imagination in the world can't make up for a lack of character. "People with integrity walk safely, but those who follow crooked paths will slip and fall" (Proverbs 10:9 NLT).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wiggle Room

The Jones family (fictional -- but I'll bet you know this family) is on a very strict money management budget. Every penny is accounted for.

It's not that they are struggling financially. They have plenty of money. It's just that they have adopted an austere attitude toward money as they try to save every penny they can for a down payment on a house. Their mission statement is: Save the 20% downpayment for a house as soon as possible.

It's a worthy mission.

It's also challenging. They have to work hard, keep reminding themselves of the mission, and sacrifice to make it happen.

But sometimes, the family just wants to go to a movie. Or have a nice dinner at a restaurant. But they can't. Not because they can't afford it, but because not only do such comforts not contribute to accomplishing the mission -- they detract from it.

And in time, the new home, rather than look like a worthy goal, looks not only less desirable, but undesirable. Family members grow to hate the idea. "Why can't we just stay where we are?"

Church Mission statements have the same challenge. The Church is a family, and like a family, individuals have things they want which are not always directly related to the family goals. You can ask: "How will this further our mission of being Christ on the earth and bringing others to join us?" But sometimes, they only way a program relates to that mission is that if you don't do it, dissatisfaction and unhappiness will set in and progress toward the real goal will be hampered or hindered.

There's got to be "wiggle room," a bit of leeway in the program to keep people happy on the journey.

I know a congregation where a minority of well-to-do members wanted a new church building. The one they had was fine enough, but it was old and lacked the "look" and "feel" of something new and modern. After all, some members thought, we have nice homes, why can't we have a nicer worship facility? Perhaps with some more comfortable seating? A jumbotron like our wide-screen at home? A place we would be unashamed to bring our friends to.

It wasn't long before the movement became dominant, and a building was built to the satisfaction of all at great cost. With the downturn in the economy, a few necessities are being sacrificed to pay for the building.

Did the leadership make a mistake?

Probably not. In the first place, building a new building was doable for this church. No one could have anticipated the economic crisis that now afflicts that area. They made a decision based on the information they had.

Further, sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants and will not be denied. As long as what the heart wants is not sinful, and does not adversely affect the ability of the Church to fulfill its mission, a little wiggle room makes the journey easier, and sometimes, just possible.

Leadership must remember that in every church family, everyone is on a line of varying spiritual maturity. No one may be left behind or minimized just because they are immature. In fact, they are the "little ones" Jesus referred to who must receive special attention. We have to hold it together as we move forward . . . together.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Remembering The Mission Statement

We've been looking at the idea of a mission statement, and have maintained that the mission statement for a congregation must be biblical and comprehensive. It must also be memorable. Then . . . you have to remember it. (Yeah, I know that sounds redundant -- but I have a memorable email address. If you know my name, you can remember the address. It's amazing though how many people forget it). It's surprising how many churches with good mission statements seem to toss the statement aside when it comes to formulating new plans and projects.

The leadership of a congregation I'm familiar with decided they wanted a Christian School. They reasoned: This school will let people know we care about children and will help us win their parents (and the students) to Christ.

So off they went with the school idea. It wasn't a bad idea really. In fact, it was a good one.

But years have gone by. The school occupies the lion's share of the church's resources and a good part of leader meetings concern the current challenge of the school.

How many people have they discipled as a result of the school?

Not one.

But they might in the future. That's true. It's also doubtful. Because currently, every bit of energy goes into keeping the school open. No one has time for discipling, and there are no concrete plans for making disciples. It's more of a "if we build it, they will come" mentality.

But they aren't coming.

None of this is to say that the school is a bad idea. The problem is that people became so wrapped up in the project that they forgot the mission. As I've written earlier, it's one thing to produce top notch copy machines. It's another entirely to make money off them. The church is not in the business of making money, but we'd better be in the business of making disciples. That was Christ's last command (at least according to Matthew). We're in the good works business, but that's not our only business -- nor is it enough, as followers of Jesus, to just be in that business.

Next week: "Wiggle room"